Vols vs. The Spread

The Tennessee Vols may have sampled more Spreads in recent weeks than the taste-tester at Kraft Foods.

First, they faced UAB's Spread offense in Game 2. Then there was Florida's in Game 3. Then there was Auburn's in Game 4. They'll see Northern Illinois' version tonight at 7 in Neyland Stadium.

One thing's for certain: The Huskies can't show the Vols anything they haven't seen before. That should help Tennessee's defenders.

"Yeah, it does, because it's pretty much the same (scheme) ... just different personnel and a little different twist," sophomore defensive end Chris Walker said earlier this week. "It helps us a lot when we're preparing in practice and we see some of the same stuff we'd seen the week before.

Whether Tennessee's defense faces a Spread offense, a West Coast offense or a triple-option offense, however, it must be more consistent on third down. The Vols allowed their first three opponents of 2008 to convert on 20 of 44 third-down plays, a 45.5 success rate that ranked Tennessee dead last among the 12 SEC teams. Last weekend at Auburn, however, the Vols allowed just six conversions in 18 tries.

Walker thinks Tennessee grew with each third-down stop last Saturday.

"It gives us a lot of confidence to go out there, get our job done, get off the field and give the offense back the ball," he said. "Every time we get it (third-down stop) we have a little more confidence."

There are two primary reasons the Vols were better on third down last weekend. First, Auburn's offense is limited. Secondly, Tennessee finally managed to pressure the opposing quarterback. The result – two sacks and a bunch of hurries – suggests the Vols finally may be generating a decent pass rush.

"I think we're getting really close," Walker said. "There are times that we've been really close; we just haven't finished and got to the quarterback. We had multiple times in the last game that we could've got to him. It's there; we just have to keep working hard in practice and get to him."

Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis was pleased with the progress he saw at Auburn – not only in third-down defense and pass rush, but in all areas.

"We were really for the first time complete in terms of our coverage and our pressure up front," he said. "We looked like a good football team rushing the quarterback; we looked like a good football team stopping the run, and our secondary played as well as they've played all year, and they've played well all year.

"The pressure up front was the biggest difference in the second half. We got some sacks that allowed us to get off the field. That's what you have to do. Even though we've been very productive in the take-away department, we'd gone six quarters without a turnover. So the turnover in the second half was big for us."

Given how poorly Tennessee's offense has played en route to a 1-3 start, the defense must perform at a high level just to give the Vols a chance to win most Saturdays.

"We've got to provide our offense with a short field," Chavis said. "We've got to be able to take punt returns and change field position, and we were able to do that."

Tonight's opponent, Northern Illinois, may test the Vol defense more than Auburn did. The Huskies (2-2) hung 326 passing yards on Minnesota in a season-opening 31-27 loss. The key figures are quarterback Dan Nicholson, who has a 127.43 passer-efficiency rating, and wideout Nathan Palmer, who has an eye-catching 35.4 yards-per-catch average on seven receptions.

Chavis said Henderson "knows how to run the offense, how to execute well. He throws the deep ball as well as anybody that we've seen. I think they've had more than a dozen receivers who have caught passes. They're plenty talented at receiver.

"They've got a back that has rushed for 2,000 yards in two past seasons, but he's had a tough time getting on the field because of an outstanding freshman (Me'Co Brown). They've been able to run the football, throw the football and put up big numbers doing either."

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